Terror Test-Runs on Airlines?

After my article on the biazarre incident on AirTran Flight 297 was published, one reader going by the initials VHG said something that immediately caught my attention. The comment referred to an apparently similar occurrence that happened on United Airlines flight #227 in Denver on December 9th,, only two days before my article appeared.

While the story of that flight continues to unfold, I believe it is time again to update American Thinkers with the current state of the developments surrounding these stories.    

Chris Vanderveen from 9News.com in Colorado interviewed passengers from the plane that was reportedly delayed because of the suspicious behavior by a group of men during pre-flight preparations. Although the one passenger from the flight with whom I spoke that agreed to be quoted on condition of anonymity described the incident from his vantage point as "not that big of a deal," the fact that passengers were removed from the plane and not allowed to re-board, plus that bomb-sniffing dogs checked the luggage before the plane was allowed to depart from the gate, simply suggests that the action that caused the flight delay occurred outside his line of sight. 

Bad behavior causing flight disruptions is not uniquely limited to individuals belonging to certain ethnic groups. Flights have been rerouted or delayed by the actions of drunken or stupid travelers of practically every nationality. The most famous security breach at Hartsfield airport in Atlanta involved a 32-year-old caucasian man who forced temporary closure of the entire airport while trying to evade security in order to make his flight in time to attend a football game. However, those incidents tend to be isolated, not repeated. 

Given the differences between the official AirTran account of the incident and those of multiple passengers allegedly on the flight, I contacted Christopher White of AirTran hoping to resolve those discrepancies. Specifically, I asked Mr. White if AirTran planned to revise its official statement describing the incident as simply a customer service issue that occurred due to a relatively minor miscommunication involving a single passenger. I referred Mr. White to the interview of a passenger named Brown by WSB TV. In that interview, Mr. Brown indicated that multiple passengers were engaged in behavior significantly more disconcerting than that described by the rather innocuous account given by AirTran. 

Mr. White's response to the questions I posed regarding Mr. Brown's version of what happened was confusing to say the least. Mr. White had no problem reiterating the point that the story originated from an e-mail attributed to one specific passenger. AirTran took great pains to discredit this individual. They refused to discuss comments made by other passengers of a similar nature but without the sensational details.

When asked to reconcile the difference between Mr. Brown's statement (that his experience was one of the most alarming he'd undergone in twenty years of frequent flying) against the "customer service" issue characterization by AirTran and the TSA, Mr. White responded:

I believe Mr. Brown is accurately portraying his perception of what happened. His perspective is limited to the cabin. For example. He suggested we contact the police and "expected blue lights to meet the plane. [e-mail 12/16/09 2:46 pm from Christopher White of AirTran to me]

On the other hand, when I wrote,

I'm not trying to accuse AirTran of any wrongdoing, but I am saying it appears your official report appears to have some serious factual discrepancies with the accounts already out there, from Mr. Brown in particular.  Have you spoken to Mr. Brown or are you familiar with his account? [same email]

Mr. White's answer was simply "No." 

No what? No, he's not familiar with Brown's account or no, he hasn't spoken with him? Mr. White's answers to the remainder of my questions were equally blunt: No, I may not speak with the flight crew. No, AirTran won't revise its story no matter what people actually on the plane have said. In other words, that's our story, and we're sticking to it.

Saying Mr. White provided more information than United Airlines' spokeswoman regarding flight 227 to this point isn't saying much. United says they are still investigating the incident a week after it happened.  Their spokeswoman wrote back,

[W]e have not publicly reported what may or may not have happened onboard.  As part of our commitment to safety, any conversation we have with another airline about security is a private matter.   

Her last sentence is a response to my question as to whether any common denominators between the incidents on Flight #297 and Flight #227 have been discussed with either TSA officials or AirTran.

In Vanderveen's article on Flight #227, he reported that bomb-sniffing dogs were brought aboard the plane, which was confirmed by the passenger with whom I spoke. The men forced to deplane were described as "attempting to change seats with other passengers," and another said "the men were trying to move luggage around while the plane was getting ready to push back."

In both cases, the planes were delayed, passengers were inconvenienced and unduly alarmed, and by most accounts, the flight crews on both planes were frightened out of their wits. 

Common Denominators

The situation that allegedly occurred on United flight #227 seems to have a few common denominators with what apparently happened on AirTran. In both cases, a group of men apparently of Middle Eastern descent exhibited enough strange behavior to concern the pilots, flight crew, and other passengers enough into delaying the flight, resulting in inconvenience to the passengers and unnecessary expense for the airlines. 

Chronology of Pattern Behavior

Once the point had been reached where additional information is no longer forthcoming about these two flights in the foreseeable future, I didn't know where to look for more information. An experienced reporter working on these stories suggested I turn my attention backwards to seeing whether any dots could be connected to incidents on past flights. 

America West Flight 90 -- Nov 19, 1999. In this pre-September 11th incident, two passengers speaking Arabic roamed the plane without permission and attempted to enter the cockpit in what has been described by the 9/11 commission in their report as a dry run. "Students" Muhammed al-Qudhaieen and Hamdan al-Shalawi were placed in custody and removed from the flight. Bomb-sniffing dogs were brought to search the plane. The airline was sued for discrimination, but the case was dismissed.   

Northwest Flight 327 -- Jun 29, 2004. Described by flight marshals as a terrorist dry run, thirteen men of Syrian descent changed seats, congregated in the aisles, used the bathrooms excessively, appeared nervous, and behaved in a strange manner long enough to draw attention and concern from fellow passengers. Air marshals on the plane instructed the flight crew to radio ahead for law enforcement to meet the plane when it landed in Los Angeles.

US Airways Flight 300 -- November 20, 2006. The infamous case of the flying imams, who allegedly changed seats in order to take control of every entry and exit route from the plane, ignored their assigned seats, requested unnecessary seat belt extensions, and disrupted the flight. The unused seat belt extenders were left lying on the airplane floor. Hmmm. Webbed strap belts with metal heads attached -- why would anyone be concerned about that? Who worries about customers acting strangely who make obviously unnecessary and unusual special requests?

The imams were removed from the plane but cried discrimination after the fact. They sued the airline and received an undisclosed settlement. CAIR and the imams declared victory.

AirTran Flight 175 -- Jan 1, 2009. According to an article published by the Atlanta Business Chronicle, nine Muslims traveling to an Islamic conference were removed from the plane after two members of the group allegedly engaged in a debate about the safest location to sit in the event of a bombing on the plane. The conversation alarmed other passengers, who alerted the flight crew and caused the plane to be diverted. According to Doug Hagmann in the Canada Free Press:

[N]one of the remaining 95 passengers made it to their ultimate destinations on time, AirTran refunded some tickets and made other booking arrangements due to the incident, which cost the airline dearly in time, money, and passenger goodwill.

A press release from AirTran found at EuroInvestor.co.uk incredibly reported that AirTran actually rewarded the nine Muslims who disrupted the flight, saying:

The airline has refunded the air fares of the nine passengers detained for questioning, has agreed to reimburse the passengers for expenses incurred by taking another airline and has also offered to transport the passengers home to Washington, DC, free of charge.

So let me get this straight: the nine Muslims who caused the flight delay and scared other passengers profited from their misconduct? Their airfare was refunded and they got a free flight home? Sounds like a pretty good deal to me...is this a great country, or what? 

United flight 22 -- September 28, 2009. According to the KTLA.com, two men of apparent Middle Eastern descent were removed from a flight at LAX, and the flight was delayed while the bomb squad searched the plane. An article in the LA Times reported the incident as follows:
A law enforcement source said at least one of the men ran into a restroom on the plane and appeared to hide while the New York-bound jet was taxiing on the runway, according to the source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the case was ongoing.
AirTran 297 -- Nov 17, 2009. A group of ethnic passengers used electronic devices on tarmac preparing for takeoff, changed seats, moved around, ignored flight attendants' instructions, and caused flight delay as the plane returned to terminal.

UA 227 -- Dec 9, 2009. A group of passengers believed to be of Middle Eastern descent changed seats and allegedly moved other passengers' luggage at the gate while the plane prepared for departure, prompting their removal from the flight and bomb-sniffing dogs to check the baggage.

Two possibilities that come immediately to mind are either that these incidents are orchestrated as a ploy to create a scenario to litigate for profit like the imams from US Airways Flight 300 -- or something more sinister is in the works. In the aftermath of Fort Hood, can we afford to ignore warning signs of abnormal or pattern behavior any longer? 

John Leonard can be reached at johnleonard@mindspring.com.  His first book, titled Hybrid Theory: Reconciling Creationism and Evolution Theory, is awaiting publication.
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